Harkening back to the days of rather basic 2D Japanese RPGs like the original Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior, Dragon Fantasy: Book I at first appears to be little more than a tribute to the games that created a genre. However, on closer inspection, the title manages to craft its own thoughtful identity through a clever use of humour, and an addictive, if unoriginal, style of gameplay.
As soon as you begin your grand adventure, it’s immediately apparent how self-aware the game is. Instead of playing as the usual plucky teenage hero, you’re dropped into the old and worn shoes of Ogden, a man who was once the saviour of the kingdom, but is now bald, fat, and retired. It’s a premise that doesn’t quite turn the format on its head, but it’s enough to keep things feeling fresh in a genre that’s typically laden with clichés.
Gameplay is exactly what you’d expect from an old-school JRPG. You’ll be battling hilariously-named monsters, travelling from one town to the next over a world map, and delving into dungeons to slay bosses. It’s all very standard, and borders on being overly repetitive, but the quick pace of the combat, exploration, and storytelling helps to keep things moving forward.
To the game’s benefit, the narrative is split into several chapters, each telling the story from the perspective of a different protagonist. While the over-arching plot is more comedic than engrossing, the various personalities are endearing despite their lack of development, thanks to their interactions with things like books and surrounding objects. Walking up to shelves and hitting X almost always ends with humorous results, with your current hero commenting on whatever it is they find – typically taking a jab at the stereotypes set by the game’s forbearers.
Ogden’s story moves fast, and before you know it, you’ll be guiding the washed-up warrior through another adventure full of turn-based battles, text boxes, and treasure chests. The formula is a tried and tested one, and the title succeeds in hitting just about all of the right notes when it comes to sizing up to the games that inspired it. Unfortunately, sticking to the blueprint also means that Dragon Fantasy succumbs to all of the annoyances and flaws associated with the JRPGs of old.
Aspects that are being slowly phased out of the genre, like grinding for levels, are all too present. It’s no exaggeration to say that the vast majority of your time with the release will be spent fighting battle after battle after battle in order to grow your characters, and in turn be able to tackle the next dungeon. This is especially true during the beginning of the game, where your options are severely limited. Continually beating up the same group of monsters innumerable times is strictly the only way to progress.
Trying to jump the system and take on your adversaries while underprepared will almost always result in Ogden getting his hairless head smashed in – and once you realise this, it’s back to the world map to fight another fifty lizard men. Thankfully, battles are over quickly, and the simple combat takes no time to get used to, but alas it’s not quite enough to relieve the tedious nature of a mechanic that often feels so utterly outdated.
The battle system itself is as basic as it gets, although this helps the title to retain the classic tone that the game's striving for. You’ve got your HP, your MP, and all of the other stats that you’ve become accustomed to in between. The party gain new spells or abilities as they level up, and usually each new magical art is just what you need to gain an advantage over the beasts in the current area. Progression therefore always feels linear, and character advancement becomes a predictable process rather than a surprising one.
That said, actually attaining that much-needed level-up always feels satisfying, partly due to a charmingly brilliant victory melody that plays as you watch your stats increase. And if there's one thing that Dragon Fantasy has in abundance, it's charm – even if most of it is stems from nostalgia. References and subtle nods to its predecessors can be found almost everywhere, while character dialogue and in-game messages convey information in a cheerfully light-hearted manner.
The game’s visual style ties the old-school vibe together nicely, and even sports the option to switch from 16-bit to 8-bit graphics if you’re looking to jump further back in time. Character sprites are well done, and environments are colourful, although some areas – especially towns – share the exact same assets, making them feel all too similar. In contrast, monsters are varied and joyfully designed; encountering new enemies is always delightfully surprising and enjoyable because of this.
Audio plays a similar role, with a mix of peaceful, intense, and gallant melodies that accompany your current situation. The battle themes and the previously mentioned victory jingle are the standout tunes, but overall the music really captures the feel of older titles. That said, there are a few pieces that will undoubtedly gnaw away at your sanity if you linger in an area for too long.
Everything Dragon Fantasy does right comes together to create a charming 2D JRPG, and its simplistic approach to gameplay makes it a breath of fresh air on the PS3 – but the adventure really shines on the Vita. Flaws such as the excessive emphasis on grinding are alleviated to a large extent, partly due to the handheld’s portability, allowing for quick levelling sessions without the hassle. It also looks the part on Sony’s smaller console, with a less stretched image than you’ll find on a widescreen TV.
Unfortunately, the title didn't enjoy a smooth launch on the PS3, thanks to a crashing issue that reared its ugly head after every hour or so of play. On top of this, the battle system's attack accuracy algorithms were bugged, making enemies far harder to hit than your stats screen suggested. Thankfully, a patch appears to have fixed both of these problems, though it's unfortunate that such errors plagued the product's launch.
If you've been searching for an excuse to take a trip down memory lane, look no further than Dragon Fantasy: Book I. Muteki Corporation's retro JRPG love-in offers a lengthy adventure that's a perfect fit for the Vita. Its humour, fast-paced gameplay, and endearing style make it especially difficult to put down – particularly if you can look past the tedious emphasis on grinding.